As the preferred cooling medium, helium is utilised throughout the hospital and healthcare sector but finds favour in a range of applications across the industry.
In its natural state, helium is a colourless, odorless, and tasteless gas. It has the lowest solubility in water of any known gas, is the least reactive element and forms essentially no chemical compounds. The density and viscosity of helium vapor is also very low, while thermal conductivity and heat content are exceptionally high. In liquid form, helium retains its inert, colorless and odorless qualities, but is also non-corrosive, extremely cold and nonflammable. A limited, natural resource, on Earth it is created by the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. In our atmosphere, the amount of helium by volume is only 5.2 ppm.
Liquid helium is used in the hospital and healthcare field to super cool magnets in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines, representing 21% of all helium use globally. Liquid helium is also used to cool some thermo graphic cameras, which detect heat instead of visible light and are used by search-and-rescue teams to locate people among rubble or through smoke. Another 12% of the helium produced globally is used to provide an inert gas shield for laser welding.
Other applications of helium include, use in supersonic wind tunnels, to provide lift for high-altitude scientific research balloons, pressurizing space-shuttle fuel tanks, and for use in the fiber optics, semiconductor, computer chip and flat-panel display manufacturing industries. Due to its many credible attributes this non-corrosive gas extends to uses in a number of other applications, including in the study of superconductivity, in metallurgy, analytical chemistry and leak detection. As helium won’t become radioactive, it is also used as a cooling medium for nuclear reactors.
Health and Safety
Being as odorless, colorless, tasteless, and non-irritating as it is, helium by nature has no warning properties and humans possess no senses that can detect its presence. Although helium is nontoxic and inert, it can act as a simple asphyxiant by displacing the oxygen in air to levels below that required to support life. Such inhalation of helium in excessive amounts can cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness and even death. In extreme circumstances and at low oxygen concentrations, unconsciousness and death may occur in seconds, and without warning.
Helium demand has been tightening for almost a year, as just about everywhere in the world has experienced demand outstripping supply, and this is likely to continue for at least 2 more years. The current shortage was triggered by the US Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) restrictions on the quantity of crude helium feed gas that the BLM will allow helium refiners to ‘redeliver’ from the BLM’s crude helium pipeline, thus reducing the capacity of 6 helium liquefaction plants that together account for nearly two thirds of global capacity. The world’s largest source of commercial helium, the Exxon Mobil plant in Wyoming, was operating at only 80-85% of capacity due to plant problems which have now been successfully resolved.
In addition, production from new plants in Algeria and Qatar was delayed and ramped up to full production more slowly than had been anticipated. This coupled with few maintenance outages has lead to the current demand supply mismatch. There are currently a number of energy/helium projects on the horizon but up until 2011, it is expected that the worldwide supply of helium will remain tight.
Future Helium Sourcing Opportunities
• Qatar II –New 700MMscfy adjacent to Qatar I.
Delayed due to Qatar I plant issues. Not expected on-stream until 2011.
• Irkutsk, Russia – New 270MMscfy. TNK BP in dispute with Gazprom. Likely to be delayed until at least 2011.
• Arzew II,Algeria – New 600MMscfy. Expected on-stream in 2010/2011.
• Cimarex – New 200-400MMscfy plant inWyoming.
• Sofamco – Potential new helium crude source in Texas.
• Tanguh, Indonesia – New 560MMscfy. Expected on-stream in 2011/2012
In October 2007, it was announced that Australia’s first-ever helium production plant will be built in the country’s Northern Territory at Darwin after a deal was reached between gas companies there. The project will have the capacity to meet the entire country’s helium needs and also supply export markets.